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Officials catching their breath, while bracing for a second crest

FARGO -- Local officials are taking the weekend to rest, reassess and get ready for another possibly record-setting crest.

Agencies are operating on minimal staffing to give workers time off, while still planning their defenses if the river rises above 40 feet again in mid-April, as the National Weather Service has predicted.

The river level was at 34.74 feet at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, down more than 6 feet from the record crest one week earlier.

"We have some time, so go to church on Sunday and be thankful we've gotten this far," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said at a press conference Saturday morning.

City leaders are asking residents to inspect their own dikes, and count their unused sandbags and report that number to the engineering department. The city has 500,000 sandbags in reserve.

Later this week, the city wants volunteers to report on its Web site how many hours they spent on flood fighting efforts.

Neighborhood meetings will be held in Fargo this week to address specifics in the city's protective measures. The city may add more contingency dikes, though leaders will take time to assess the forecast and their defenses.

"We are treating this like a second flood," said City Commissioner Tim Mahoney.

Federal Emergency Management Agency teams toured the damage already wrought in Clay, Cass and Richland counties Saturday.

Minnesota-based teams assessed damage north and south of Clay on Friday. In North Dakota, teams will have conducted preliminary damage assessments in 22 counties by Monday afternoon. These assessments will help determine if the region is eligible for individual assistance.

In rural Cass County, about 100 homes were damaged by the recent flooding, said county engineer Keith Berndt.

"Most of those are going to be pretty significant" amounts of damage, Berndt said, adding that between 10 and 20 percent had water on the main level.

'Planning, not panic'

Oakport Township lost a minimum of 80 to 120 homes, township chairman Greg Anderson said.

The township will hold a public meeting at 7 tonight in the Dilworth Community Center, asking residents to ramp up their dikes.

Anderson said there are a lot of dikes that held last week but aren't sturdy enough to withhold a lot of water for a couple weeks.

"This is their golden opportunity to make their dike the best it can be," Anderson said. "We want to stress planning, not panic."

County and city crews plan to examine earthen and sandbag levees this week. As the ground thaws, these could sag and drop in elevation.

Moorhead engineers met Saturday to look at contingency plans for the new forecast, including secondary levees, said Bob Zimmerman, city engineer.

The location and construction of these clay and sandbag dikes will likely be discussed at Monday's Moorhead City Council meeting.

"A lot of measures are in place," Zimmerman said. "What we really want to do is look at providing an additional level of protection given the uncertainty of what the future crest might be."

That uncertainty has left some residents in flux.

'Wait and see'

Fargo's Bethany Homes suspended the return of the last 70 displaced residents Saturday at the request of the county Emergency Operations Center, said Grant Richardson, senior executive for development and community relations.

Engineers will study the elevation of the campus on south University Drive and transportation routes to and from the facility to make plans for the next crest. About 300 residents have already returned.

"It's kind of a wait and see thing for us now," Richardson said. "We're confident we can take care of our residents on site."

Meanwhile, the last group of displaced residents of the Waterford at Harwood Groves, a retirement community in south Fargo, returned Saturday. These 25 residents had been staying at an assisted living facility in Valley City, N.D.

"We made new friends and everything was quite strange," said Evelyn Gilmore, a 103-year-old resident of the Waterford.

She was excited to get on the bus back to her home.

"We knew we were going to make it then," Gilmore said.

Inmates evacuated from the Cass County Jail are also being transferred back to the facility this weekend. Eleven maximum security inmates returned Friday. The other 111 inmates would be transferred back by Monday. Most were being held in Grand Forks, Stutsman County and Rugby, N.D.

Sheriff Paul Laney would not comment on the transfer schedule for security reasons, but said it is going quickly and smoothly.

Laney said his department has cut back on staffing to allow deputies to rest, while planning for the "next go-around."

"In a moment's notice we can go back to full response operations at full staffing," he said.